breeding

More Rookery Birds

I saw a crow building a nest, I was watching him very carefully, I was kind of stalking him and he was aware of it. And you know what they do when they become aware of someone stalking them when they build a nest, which is a very vulnerable place to be? They build a decoy nest. It’s just for you.–Tom Waits

White Ibis Chicks, McClendon Park Rookery, Houston, Texas
White Ibis Chicks, McClendon Park Rookery, Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4 L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

One of the best things about being a birder on the Texas Gulf Coast is being able to continue having great birding experiences right after the spring migration ends. Courtship, nesting, and rearing young continue right into the summer–to be followed shortly by fall migration! In addition to visiting Smith Oaks Rookery as we always do in spring and early summer, we have been visiting the McClendon Park Rookery. White Ibis and Cattle Egrets are the main attractions at this new rookery.

Cattle Egret with Stick, McClendon Park Rookery, Houston, Texas
Cattle Egret with Stick, McClendon Park Rookery, Houston, Texas. Cattle Egrets gather nesting materials well into June. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

We have seen young White Ibises before at the Pilant Lake Rookery at Brazos Bend State Park, but McClendon offers much better views–but under less aesthetic conditions. I learned a bit about etiquette at McClendon the other day: Did you know that when you drive by photo-birders you should blow your horn and scream gibberish at them? People must be visiting southwest Houston from Dauphin Island, Alabama! Another photo-birder got beaned by a projectile thrown from a passing car at McClendon. There is apparently no shortage of riffraff in this part of town–so watch yourself if you decide to bird here.

Attempted Siblicide, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Attempted Siblicide, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. The aggressor struggled mightily to toss its nest-mate to the alligator-infested water below. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Snowy Egret Family, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Snowy Egret Family, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Snowy Egret chicks are almost as brutal to each other as Great Egret chicks are. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Clearly, rookeries offer observations of some of the most interesting bird behavior–from displays, feeding, and young birds trying to murder each other–and all the adults are in their plumed finery! Snowy and Great Egrets seem to have to most active, aggressive young. We haven’t witnessed cormorant chicks trying to kill each other, but they put on quite a show when a parent returns to the nest with food. The violent, in-your-face action makes photography difficult, although we continue to try when opportunities present themselves.

Hopeful Neotropic Cormorant Chick, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Hopeful Neotropic Cormorant Chick with Parent, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Finally, as we continue to bird over the years, we continue to rack up observations of additional species at new locations. To expand our rookery knowledge, we will now have to travel to more logistically challenging spots–namely rookeries that require a boat to observe. I have briefly observed a Reddish Egret/Tricolored Heron rookery from a distance by boat in Galveston Bay, and can’t wait to get back. It’s just a matter of time and money. That’s all!

Juvenile Tricolored Heron, Galveston Bay near Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Juvenile Tricolored Heron, Galveston Bay near Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. Image taken from a boat on a brutal white-hot day. Thanks to DS for access to the boat. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2017 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved no text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

The Black-necked Stilt Courtship Ritual

Courtship consists in a number of quiet attentions, not so pointed as to alarm, nor so vague as not to be understood.—Laurence Sterne

Lafitte’s cove is often thought of as a mecca for migrant songbirds, but it’s usually a good idea to check the margins of the lakes for shorebird and wader activity. On one recent visit (4/16), we were lucky to see the courtship ritual of the Black-necked Stilt. Although similar to that of the closely related American Avocet (which we have documented previously), the Black-necked Stilt ritual encompasses a number of different, albeit equally charming, behaviors.

The male first approaches a female that has signaled her readiness by adopting a horizontal posture. The male nods.

Black-necked Stilt 1, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black-necked Stilts 1: The Nod, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. The ritual proceeds with a nod to the presenting female. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

He then stirs the water with his beak . . . .

Black-necked Stilts 2, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black-necked Stilts 2: Look what I can do! Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The male strolls to the female’s other side . . . .

Black-necked Stilts 3, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black-necked Stilts 3: The Stroll, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Here, he again stirs up the water with his beak . . . .

Black-necked Stilt 4, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black-necked Stilts 4: Look what I can do (again)! Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed-synchronized fill-flash.

The male then mounts the female and consummates the relationship . . . .

Black-necked Stilt 5, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black-necked Stilts 5: The Act, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

After copulation, the male descends. He then places his wing over her body and crosses his bill over hers . . . .

Black-necked Stilts 6, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black-necked Stilts 6: Crossed Beaks, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

The pair then promenades together for a few paces. They are now together . . . for at least this breeding season.

Black-necked Stilts 7, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black-necked Stilts 7: Begin Promenade, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4xTC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

©2017 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Fiorenza Park Action!

Motion is tranquility. –Stirling Moss

Soaring Great Blue Heron, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Soaring Great Blue Heron, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. After spending a morning trying to photograph cormorants blazing past, capturing a slowly passing Great Blue seemed almost easy by comparison. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Despite being crowded, Fiorenza Park is a nice, easy get-away for Houston bird photographers. And there are a number of opportunities that would be difficult to realize elsewhere. I have already discussed some of the weird invasive species that can be observed here in previous posts. The most appealing opportunities, though, are offered by a hill that overlooks the bayou connecting the north and south lakes. A small road leads to within yards of where to stand for optimum shooting on the hill-top—talk about your low-energy photo-birding!

Cormorants can be seen flying from the south lake and along this bayou carrying nesting materials and fish to small islands in the north lake (and back again empty handed, so to speak). Sometimes the birds fly almost at eye-level as seen from the hill. Besides cormorants, waders sometimes fly along the same path. The hill-top also allows the photographer to survey most of the bayou where waders can be seen hunting.

Neotropic Cormorant with Vine, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Neotropic Cormorant with Vine, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

I struggled initially with this spot because the birds typically come in too fast for my normal (albeit unusual) photographic technique: I pick my shots and shoot one frame at a time (with autofocus confirmation). My rationale for this is three-fold. If I am shooting with flash, the flash capacitor can’t recharge fast enough to keep up with a high frame rate. Also, the typical machine gun approach is hell on shutters. This is not so much of a problem with the 7DII, which is rated for 200k actuations, but the old 7D had a life expectancy of only 100k shots. A burned-out shutter is no fun right in the middle of shoot. Just firing away in high-speed mode also means weeding a bunch of junk shots, which is also no fun.

For this locale, I switched to a more typical bird-in-flight (BIF) methodology: I just blaze away in high-speed AI servo (without autofocus confirmation or flash) with image stabilizer in panning mode, and I pick out the goodies from a bunch of baddies. It definitely works better than my initial conservative approach.

Great Egret with Ibis Head, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Weird Scene: Great Egret with Juvenile Ibis Head, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. Waders are not above eating carrion. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Despite the park appearing somewhat sterile compared with, say, Brazos Bend State Park or many of the local national wildlife refuges, Great Blue, Little Blue, and Tricolored Herons and Snowy and Great Egrets enjoy great hunting success along the Fiorenza bayou. South American armored catfish are often taken, and I have heard anecdotal reports of Tilapia, (a South American invasive cichlid) also being grabbed.

Having the camera in the BIF mode described above had one unpredicted benefit in the case of the image below. I saw the bird strike and just blazed away. I never actually saw what the bird had until I chimped for exposure ex post facto. According to the frame rate, the bird was in contact with the snake for about 4-tenths of a second in total. The snake was wound around the bird’s beak for about 2-tenths of a second when the bird dumped the snake. According to long-time friend and herpetologist D.S. who identified the snake for me, the diamondback watersnake is an extremely aggressive fast-biter when cornered or attacked. I can vouch for this expert assessment: This bird wanted no part of that snake once it figured out what it was dealing with.

Great Egret with Diamondback Water Snake, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Great Egret with Diamondback Water Snake (Nerodia rhombifer), Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Color Variation in Breeding Male Orange Bishops

I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection. –Charles Darwin

Male Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas
Male Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Photo taken July 13, 2016. Natural light.

On our most recent visit to Buffalo Run Park in Missouri City (8/6/16) it seemed that some of the Orange Bishops (Euplectes franciscanus) were a different color than during previous visits. In mid-July, I thought that all the males were orange and black (with a muddy orange-brown mantle) and a hint of red in the throat.

The redness of the throat was heightened when the birds went into display mode as you can see in the images immediately above and below. The red color could be structural (due to the physical optics of the feather), a result of pigmentation, or both. It seems likely that this red color could be in part structural, like the colors of a hummingbird gorget, but for reasons discussed below it seems unlikely that the red is due to this alone.

Displaying Male Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas
Male Orange Bishop in Display Mode, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas. This is the same bird as at the top of the post. This bird was displaying into the sun. Coincidence? Note the red in the throat and upper chest. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

On August 6, I saw a number of birds that were clearly more red than orange. Because the difference was so striking, I wondered if these redder birds were actually a different species, namely the Southern Red Bishop (Euplectes orix). Some quick research revealed that the Southern Red Bishop is not kept as a pet for some reason and thus not likely to be found in pet shops, the ancestral source of the Buffalo Run birds. Also, although very similar in general appearance to the Orange Bishop (aka, Northern Red Bishop), the black face mask of the southern species extends around the bottom of the lower bill into the throat. The birds at Buffalo Run Park, then, are clearly the northern species.

Color in birds is a fascinating and complex subject involving some rather difficult physics and biochemistry. Color can be a function of both pigmentation and physical optics (interference and diffraction) of light as it passes through the feathers. Reflection from lighter feathers beneath the outer feathers is also implicated in some avian colors. Interestingly, the color of birds can be affected by diet, especially in the case of yellows, reds, and oranges which are derived from ingested carotenoid compounds.

As a test of whether the red color in the redder Orange Bishops was structural, I was sure to capture images of the birds facing into and away from the sun (below). I would expect differences in appearance if the color was structural, much as a hummingbird looks different when illuminated from different angles. I noticed no change in color due to direction of light in the case of the redder bishops. Likewise the orange Orange Bishops appeared very similar facing into and away from the sun, with the exception of the throat. The two birds above are facing into the sun, and the bird in an earlier post was facing away from the sun.

For these reasons, I suspect that pigmentation is involved in the red of these birds. But this begs a number of other interesting questions. If carotenoid pigments are often involved in the warm colors, and these compounds are found in the diet of birds, how is it that bishops look the same in Africa as Texas? Surely they are not eating exactly the same plants. Or are they? Is it natural for bishops to redden into a deeper red later in the breeding season? If so, is this due to diet or genetics or both? Are the red versus orange birds simply a matter of individual variation, the stuff of natural selection? A few hours chasing African birds around on a sweltering Texas morning has provided more questions than answers.

Redder Male Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas
Redder Male Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Photo taken on August 6, 2016. The camera was facing north. Natural light.
Redder Male Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas
Redder Male Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L (+1.4x TC). Photo taken on August 6, 2016. This is the same bird as the previous image. The camera was facing north. Natural light.

Finally, although the females are very sparrow-like in appearance and much more shy and difficult to photograph than the males, I made several attempts to maneuver close to them for an image. I would note that, ultimately, color in breeding male birds is all about female breeding preference. Buffalo Run Park could be natural laboratory for the study of how invasive species adapt to a new environment, specifically breeding in a new context. I foresee a master’s thesis for some budding young ornithologist.

Female Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas
Female Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Avian Happenings, East End, Galveston Island, Texas

Those who live by the sea can hardly form a single thought of which the sea would not be part. –Hermann Broch

Laughing Gull with White Shrimp, East End, Galveston Island, Texas
Laughing Gull with White Shrimp (Litopenaeus setiferus), East End, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Over the past week or so, I’ve made several dawn and dusk visits (once with Elisa) to the East End/East Beach area to observe and photograph summer shorebird behavior—which abounds at this time of year. Unfortunately by 8 am the area has been a blazing inferno, making photography a challenge.

In an earlier post I mentioned the appearance of a new tidal channel near the East End Lagoon Preserve. This week I took a look-see to find out the status of the new channel and the impact it might be having on the wildlife of the area. As I expected, the channel has expanded: it is now about twenty yards wide at the mouth during high tide. A Reddish Egret patrolled the channel mouth while Laughing Gulls, Royal and Sandwich Terns, and the odd Willet mostly stood around while I photographed them. They were taking some interesting prey, though.

Laughing Gull with Cutlassfish, East End, Galveston Island, Texas
Laughing Gull with Atlantic Cutlassfish (Trichiurus lepturus), East End, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

During the warm months, a strange, eel-like fish, the Atlantic cutlassfish (aka ribbonfish), is abundant in the bays and channels along the Texas Gulf Coast. Laughing Gulls and Royal Terns were having a field day eating them this week. Although the birds consumed them enthusiastically, both species seemed to have difficulty swallowing the fish’s long, thread-like tail. Some birds were walking around with a silver thread trailing out of their beaks!

Mating Royal Terns, East End, Galveston Island, Texas
Mating Royal Terns, East End, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Male Least Tern with Nuptial Gift, East End, Galveston Island, Texas
Male Least Tern with Nuptial Gift, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. The Least Tern is an endangered species and nests in scrapes on supratidal areas on Galveston’s East Beach. These nesting areas are protected by the Houston Audubon Society. Please adhere strictly to posted warnings. All beach-nesting birds have taken a terrible beating in recent decades because of recreational use of beaches—especially motorized vehicles that crush eggs and nestlings. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The real story at this time of year on Texas beaches and barrier islands is, of course, breeding. The Royal Terns, Least Terns, and to a lesser extent, the Sandwich Terns, clearly had mating on their minds. Royal and Sandwich Terns were doing some dancing. Male Royal Terns and Least Terns were presenting females with a nuptial gift of small fish. A few Least Terns were nest-sitting. Some Royal Terns were copulating right out in public. Gracious! What will the drunken fishermen think?

Plovers, too, were everywhere on the East End of Galveston. Wilson’s Plovers were breeding along with Least Terns in the protected areas. Snowy Plovers were running around everywhere, but likely not nesting—their coastal nesting areas are further south in Texas. A few Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers were standing around trying to look innocent—as if we didn’t know that they are tardy for an appointment in the high-Arctic. Or perhaps they are among those rare birds that reside in Texas during the summer but do not breed?

Semipalmated Plover, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Semipalmated Plover, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. These birds breed in the high-Arctic, not Texas. Photographed in mid-June, is this bird really late for the spring migration, really early for the fall migration, or a “rare summer visitor?” Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Male Wilson's Plover, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Male Wilson’s Plover in the Weird Light of a Supratidal Mudflat at the Crack of Dawn, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Female Wilson's Plover, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Banded Female Wilson’s Plover at Dawn, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Finally, lending a splash of color to the seascape were American Avocets in breeding colors. These birds are either very late spring migration stragglers or belong to scattered clusters of birds, rare summer residents, that inhabit the Texas Coast. Whatever their story, it’s nice to be able to see shorebirds in breeding (summer) and non-breeding (winter) plumage at the same locale.

American Avocet in Breeding Color, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
American Avocet in Breeding Color, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Oregon Coast Naturalist Adventures: Part 1

The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. –Jules Verne

Sea Lion Haul-out, Simpson Reef, Cape Arago State Park, Oregon
Sea Lion Haulout, Simpson Reef, Cape Arago State Park, Oregon. Four species of marine mammals haul out on this beach: Northern Elephant Seals, Harbor Seals, and California and Stellar’s Sea Lions. Although all four species were present this day, the latter two species dominate this image. I could identify only three elephant seals in the entire colony. The larger, lighter-colored animals are Stellar’s Sea Lions. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Last week we took a photo-birding road trip along the southwest Oregon coast, from Newport to Brookings. Our goals were to unwind and enjoy the cool, fresh air, put the terrible weather and Texas floods out of our minds, maybe pick up a few new species, and sample a few new Pacific Northwest brews.

Harbor Seal Parent and Pup, southwest Oregon coast
Harbor Seal Parent and Pup, Coquille Point, Oregon. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The main natural attractions in southern Oregon during late spring are the marine mammals and breeding colonies of seabirds. Breeding songbirds can also be seen in the coastal forests, and we watched Wilson’s Warblers gathering insects for young and heard the song of the Orange-crowned Warbler, a species we see often in Texas but never hear sing because it doesn’t breed here. For a few hours we were puzzled by the Orange-crown’s song: it sounds a bit like the song of the Northern Parula (so we knew we were dealing with a warbler), albeit lower and slower. But with a little help from iBird we sorted out most of the songbird songs, the Orange-crowned Warbler included.

Glaucous-Winged Gull on Nest, Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, Oregon
Western Gull on Nest, Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, Oregon. The most common gull in the area is the Western Gull, surely constituting more than 90% of the gull population at this time of year. Perhaps 5% of the gulls in the area were Glaucous-winged Gulls. We may have seen one Glaucous Gull, which are completely white when young and breed in the high-Arctic. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Common Murre Colony, Yaquina Head, Oregon
Common Murre Breeding Colony, Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, Oregon. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4 L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The most common seabird we saw was the Common Murre. We photographed two major colonies, Coquille Point and Yaquina Head. These breeding colonies exist on small, rocky islands, and are among the most spectacular birding destinations in the country. Common Murres, Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants, Pigeon Guillemots, and Western and Glaucous-winged Gulls can be seen in these colonies, at least at a distance, in southern Oregon.

Common Murres can be seen rarely as individuals fishing off rocky shores and jetties as well as in huge flotillas of thousands of birds far off shore. Common Murres typically lay one egg that they incubate on their feet, without nesting materials, penguin-style. A second egg may be layed if the first egg is lost to accidents or predators. Predators of Common Murre eggs and young include crows and gulls. Bald Eagles will grab adult birds, and we heard that an eagle was hunting around Yaquina Head while we were there.

Given the superficial similarities between murres and penguins, I wondered if a predator-prey relationship existed between the murres and sea lions paralleling the famous relationship between penguins and leopard seals documented by wildlife photographer Brian Clark Howard for National Geographic. I could find no references to specific predators eating murres while at sea, although sharks and toothed whales seem possible candidates. California Sea Lions have been observed grabbing Common Murre chicks in the water near breeding colonies, though. Storms and fishing nets certainly kill many as dead murres sometimes wash up on shore and images of drowned murres and other seabirds tangled in fishing nets and lines exist from around the Northern Hemisphere.

Tufted Puffin, Oregon State Aquarium, Newport, Oregon
Tufted Puffin, Oregon State Aquarium, Newport, Oregon. Aviary bird. Canon EOS 7DII/500mm. Natural light.

Our last stop was at the Oregon State Aquarium in Newport. We usually steer clear of zoos and the like, but we read that there was an open air aviary with a number of pelagic Pacific species that are very hard to photograph in the wild up close because they stay out to sea, and their nesting areas are federally protected (it is unlawful to approach closer than 500 feet). The aquarium opens at 10am, so photography is tough. Nevertheless, we took some acceptable portraits of Rhinoceros Auklets, puffins, and other alcids—images that would be extremely challenging to capture in any other way.

Amazing as the animals of the Pacific Northwest are, the dazzling display of plant life, native and exotic, especially flowering species, give them a run for their money—fodder for a future post.

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Summer Birding Arrives!

Out where the rivers like to run
I stand alone
And take back something worth remembering —Paul Williams, Out in the Country

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron Nestlings, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron Nestlings, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Not being from Borneo, it usually takes me a while to get used to birding the Texas Gulf Coast in summer. After a few weeks outside, I’m fairly acclimated, the dreary exhaustion of work has lifted, and I have sweated off a dozen or more pounds.

Despite the hardships, there are a number of positives associated with Texas summer photo-birding. Usually by June the allergy season is pretty much over (for me), and my senses of vision and smell are sharper. By mid-summer and weeks of being in the field trying to get in tune with the sensations of nature, I can smell other humans coming from quite a ways off. I’ve read that many foreigners say that Americans smell like soap. I concur—although after a day in the field I probably smell more like a thrift shop.

And most of the time during summer there is almost no one else outside—not even the usual noisy rabble of filthy litterbugs! Texas is just plain too brutal in summer for most people, casual birders included.

Cattle Egret in Breeding Colors among Wildflowers, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Cattle Egret in Breeding Colors among Wildflowers, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. This bird is likely hoping to find a big, juicy katydid or lizard. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Brazos Bend State Park is where I go most often in the summer for three reasons: It’s easy to get to, the bugs are tame compared to most other places around here, and it’s a great place to photograph hunting and fishing scenes. Hope springs eternal for capturing a big wader with a water snake, baby alligator, or nutria—although it’s usually fish, frogs, and insects.

Of course, like everywhere else at this time of year, there are lots of young birds around, too. By late July or early August, the first of the earliest migrants start arriving. By that time, I’m well over the heat, humidity, and bugs and am longing for a change. Of course, Texas is often merciless and won’t allow for a significant cool-down until at least October, when fall migration is in full swing. And then, of course, there are the summer trips. But that’s another story . . . .

Prothonotary Warbler with Dragonfly, Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Prothonotary Warbler with Dragonfly, Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Dragonflies are a big part of the many birds’ diets. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

American Avocet Courtship and Mating, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas

 Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May . . . . –William Shakespeare

Last weekend the weather was spectacular, and Elisa and I took full advantage. East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas was our first stop of the weekend. We were surprised to find a large flock (100+) of American Avocets, mostly in breeding color (rusty-red/cinnamon head, neck, and breast) in the main lagoon just south of the parking area.

The main breeding range of the American Avocet is from the Texas Panhandle to south-central Canada, west to the Pacific Coast. American Avocets also breed along the South Texas Gulf Coast. There is a wintering population of Avocets all along the Gulf Coast, but we don’t typically see them in breeding colors this far north.

As we watched the ruddy-faced flock, we soon we noticed that some pairs were engaged in their charming and elegant courtship and mating behaviors. All images in this post taken with a Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC) under natural light.

Mating American Avocets 1: The Female Presents
Mating American Avocets 1: The Female Presents.

After photographing birds in the lagoon for a time, I walked south along the strand line of the Gulf. On the return hike, about a dozen Avocets flew from the lagoon and landed right in front of me in a few inches of Gulf water. One pair began courtship behavior almost immediately, as shown in this sequence of images. First, the female presented herself to the flapping and splashing male by holding her body parallel to the ground.

Mating American Avocets 2: Mounting
Mating American Avocets 2: Mounting. Note the more strongly upturned beak of the female.

The male soon mounted the female and copulation began. In about a minute, the act was complete, and the elegant post-mating dance began . . . .

Mating American Avocets 3: Interplay of Beaks
Mating American Avocets 3: Interplay of Beaks.

The pair crossed beaks as they walked along together. They then separated bills and walked together side-by-side, necks strongly inclined forward.

Mating American Avocets 5
Mating American Avocets 4: Leaning Forward.

After a few seconds, the birds rotated their necks into a vertical position, with bills pointed strongly downward. The pair walked along together in this posture for a few paces. Necks became more vertical as the pair promenaded along together for a few paces, then separated. Soon, they were again threshing the water for prey.

Mating American Avocets 5: Elegant Promenade
Mating American Avocets 5: Elegant Promenade.

©2015 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

A Season of Extravagance

Snowy Egrets in High Breeding Plumage, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Snowy Egrets in High Breeding Color and Plumage, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. The lores and feet of Snowy Egrets turn from yellow to pink and orange, respectively, at the peak of breeding season. Photo taken in April. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

We are now entering a season of extravagance—extravagance of avian color, plumage, and behavior. Soon, displays, mating and nesting will be going on all along the Texas Gulf Coast. Early birds have already begun. Some waders are sporting nuptial (breeding) plumes, and lore and leg/foot colors are beginning to pop. Hormones are surging through bloodstreams. Many of the waders and other water birds are on edge: Common Moorhens are fighting it out amongst themselves for dominance, and Great Blue Herons are nesting deep in the marshes. A Great Horned Owl, too, is currently nesting in the woods west of 40-Acre Lake, Brazos Bend State Park.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in Display Mode, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in Display Mode, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. This may have been a threat display directed at the photographer: no other birds were around (that I noticed). Photo taken in late May, when Yellow-crowned Night-Herons are raising young at Brazos Bend SP. During breeding, the legs of these birds turn from yellowish to a pinkish orange. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Back-off, Camera Boy! Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Another probable threat display during nesting season (May) directed at the photographer. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light

Soon, an exciting time of the year for birding will become the most exciting time. Neotropical migrant songbirds will be showing up in droves along the coast. For now, as far as migrants are concerned, we’ll have to settle for American Bitterns. Recently American Bitterns have been extremely active at Brazos Bend State Park (especially Pilant Lake). They have been hunting, calling, and engaged in threat displays among themselves and in the face of humans. American Bitterns do not often breed in Texas, and are sometimes described as “winter visitors” to Texas. Brazos Bend Bitterns are most likely on their way to their breeding grounds in the northern U.S. or Canada.

American Bittern Threat Display, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
American Bittern Threat Display, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Again, I think this was for my benefit: no other birds were around. Photo taken in February. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (_1.4x TC). Natural light.

Although the weather continues to look pretty bad for adventures in the out-of-doors, anticipation of the spring excitement ahead keeps me looking up (and down and sideways)! And then it’s summer and the mountains!

Great Blue Heron in Breeding Colors (in February!), Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Great Blue Heron in Breeding Colors (in late February), Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. During breeding season, the lores become a deep blue and the beak turns to a deep orangish red. Similarly, the legs change from a grayish black to an orangish red. Note the erect black eyebrow feathers. This bird was jumpy. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Great Blue Heron in Non-breeding color, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Great Blue Heron in Non-breeding (Post-breeding) Color in late May, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Where there is no extravagance there is no love, and where there is no love there is no understanding.—Oscar Wilde

©2015 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

And so it begins . . . .

For everything that lives is holy, life delights in life.—William Blake

Mating Blue-winged Teal, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park
Mating Blue-winged Teal, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP), Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Having grown up among the frozen wastes of Minnesota during the 1960’s and 1970’s (when it was cold!), it’s always a shock to me how early spring begins here in the Texas subtropics. This year breeding behavior seems to have begun even earlier than usual, probably due to the unusually warm winter weather (82° F in Houston on 2/9/15?). February has barely begun and the air is full of birdsong, the four-note song of the Carolina Chickadee being especially prominent. Northern Cardinals and Carolina Wrens are also singing proudly from the bare branches.

On 2/7/15 I observed a pair of Blue-winged Teal mating on Pilant Lake, BBSP. Blue-winged Teal nest primarily in grassy areas around calm ponds and lakes on the prairies (“pothole prairie” habitat) across North America, especially the upper Midwest. In Texas, Blue-winged Teal breed primarily in the Panhandle, although they are known to breed sporadically along the Upper Texas Coast down to the Rio Grande Valley. Females are known for their secretive nesting behavior, so Blue-winged Teal nests and ducklings are definitely worth keeping an eye out for this spring at BBSP.

Sunning Sora, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas.
Sunning Sora, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). This Sora sat right out in the open sunning on a chilly winter morning—so much for the “secretive” Sora! High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Despite the oft-purported “widespread” and “common” nature of the Sora reported in the literature, I am always excited to see these quirky and charming (and often—nay usually—photographically uncooperative) rails. One caught my eye recently along the southern margin of Pilant Lake. This bird saw me and ambled into a hollow patch of brush under a fallen limb and kept an eye on me. This foolish bird thought it could wait me out! Me!

Sure enough, after half an hour the bird gave up on the silly man with the camera and came back out for a sun bath. Interestingly, the spot where the rail rested had two trails of tamped-down grasses leading up to it. The spot had several features in common with published descriptions of nesting sites. Although Sora nests are rare in Texas, and the spot this bird hunkered down in was probably just a hidey-hole, hope springs eternal that I found a nesting site, and I’ll keep my eye on it in the weeks to come.

Singing Male Cardinal, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas.
The Singing Tree: Male Cardinal, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Northern Cardinals sing all year long, but step it up in spring and into summer. Several species of birds sing from this dead tree in the shallows of Pilant Lake. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

 ©2015 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

It’s a Wren Thing

Singing House Wren, Moose, Wyoming
Singing House Wren, Moose, Wyoming. Occurring from Canada to southern South America, House Wrens are one of the most widespread birds in the Americas. They are also one of the most aggressive small birds, vigorously defending their cavity nesting sites. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Several weeks ago it seemed as if Marsh Wrens were everywhere we were along the Upper Texas Coast. One minute they were singing, and the next they were hiding. Then, just as mysteriously as they appeared, the Marsh Wrens disappeared completely. A week later, there were Carolina Wrens–also alternately singing and sneaking–where the Marsh Wrens had been before. House Wrens, too, should be around at this time of year, but where are they? Hiding, no doubt.

The name for the Wren Family, Troglodytidae, refers to a “creeper into holes, or cave dweller.” One can, of course, think of many examples to justify this name. The booming voices of Canyon Wrens can be heard up and down the arid canyons they inhabit. They are fun to watch as they climb up vertical cliff walls and poke around nooks, crannies, and caves. House Wrens nest in cavities, and we’ve seen Rock Wrens in the Gila National Forest (New Mexico) nesting in limestone caves.

While birding the rain forests of Olympic National Park, Washington, we were treated to the incredibly loud and penetrating songs of the Winter Wren. Finding and photographing the birds was a challenge, though. These birds favor the understory vegetation among the massive fallen logs of mighty conifers. This humid, gloomy, atmospheric environment is low on light, and the birds scurried and sneaked suspiciously among the shadows when not serenading.

Marsh Wren, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
You’ve already seen enough: A quick look over the shoulder, and then back into the marsh. Marsh Wren, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4xTC). Natural light.

Be they House, Carolina, Canyon, Rock, Cactus, Marsh, or Winter, all wrens seem to have this now you-see-me, now-you-don’t personality. One minute they are singing their lungs out obliviously ten feet from the birder, the next they re scurrying and hiding.

Singing Cactus Wren, Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona
Singing Cactus Wren, Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona. This bird hid in a pile of brush when not singing. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Singing Carolina Wren, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Singing Carolina Wren, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Of course, this contradictory behavior is the result of two competing impulses. Most of the time wrens are secretive and shy—like most birds as they try to remain inconspicuous to predators. Then the singing begins, for all the reasons songbirds sing. They have no secrets . . . from potential mates and pretenders to their kingdoms, that is.

How infinitely charming, though, when after an hour or so of playing hide-and-seek with the birder, a wren hops up onto stump or low branch and starts his aria, “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (Love is a rebellious bird)! Fortississimo, if you please!

Winter Wren, Olympic National Park, Washington
Singing in the Darkness: Winter Wren, Olympic National Park, Washington. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.—Ayn Rand

 ©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Longing for Spring (Sort of)

Great Egret on nest at High Island, Texas
Great Egret Preening over Nest with Eggs at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural Light.

Being from Minnesota, I am usually only reluctantly looking forward to spring in Texas—mainly because the summer swelter soon follows. But this winter, the weather (mostly drizzle, fog, mist, clouds; rain) has been so appalling that I am definitely looking forward to spring more than most years. In addition to watching out for migrants, primarily at the migrant traps like Lafitte’s Cove, High Island, Sabine Woods, etc., we’ll be on the lookout for nesting birds, eggs and babies. And the Texas Gulf Coast is a great place for rookeries . . .

Roseate Spoonbill on nest at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Roseate Spoonbill on Nest at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

One of the best rookeries for observation and photography, of course, is the Smith Oaks Rookery on High Island. I have not been there since buying our 600mm f/4L, though. Some of the nests at Smith Oaks are just a little too far for optimum results with a 500mm lens, so I am looking forward to what can be gained with the extra focal length.

Unfortunately, two problems exist at Smith Oaks: crowding and mosquitos. Although not quite as bad  as a shopping mall the day before Christmas, High Island can be quite crowded and not all birders are quite civilized. Some birders seem insistent that photographers stay in the “designated tripod photography areas, ” while some others feel free to stand around in those areas without taking pictures. In any case, listening to the snarky comments while swatting mosquitos may be amusing. Or not.

Juvenile Reddish Egret near Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Juvenile Reddish Egret near Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. By early summer, there are generally lots of young birds out and about near the many coastal rookeries. Photo taken from a boat. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.—Joseph Campbell

©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.